Remember the Telephone

Technology disrupts the institutions and jobs that are vulnerable in our society, but we humans seem to be a bit more resistant to change.

If writers, academics, and observers of all stripes are concerned about the effects social media are having on society, they're hardly the first to worry about the changes wrought by a new technology. Pretty much any disruptive technology is met with a now-familiar cycle of dismissal, "grandiose pronouncements," and gradual adoption, explains Tom Vanderbilt, and for a fine telling of what this has looked like historically, turn to his story of the telephone's early life in the new issue of the Wilson Quarterly (where I used to work).

Vanderbilt writes:

The telephone fits comfortably into this schema. It arrived on the historical stage in 1876 without invitation or clear mass desire. Yet there it was, a device harboring a radical change: For the first time, people could converse in real time at a distance. But what to do with it? As sociologist Claude Fischer observed in America Calling (1992),businessmen, who relied on letters and the telegraph to transmit important and often complex information, were initially skeptical of the telephone. "For them," Fischer wrote, "voice transmission, scratchy and often indistinct, could be an adjunct at best." (Inventor Elisha Gray gave up pursuing the telephone, which he called the "talking telegraph," to focus on improving telegraphy.) Economics also played a role. William Preece, chief engineer of the British postal service, said America--not Britain--had use for the telephone. "Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind."

Then, as Fischer described, the uses took hold, cycling through new audiences and wider purposes, thanks in large part to a vigorous marketing push by the Bell System. (The company boasted in a 1909 ad that it had "from the start created the need of the telephone and then supplied it.") First the phone was used for commercial business, then for household business, then, gradually, for social purposes: visiting with relatives, "fond intimate talks," getting "in touch." "Friendship's path," a 1937 AT&T ad declared, "often follows the trail of the telephone wire."

Yet despite its "seemingly transformative nature," the telephone, Vanderbilt writes, is rather understudied. There is not a single scholarly publication devoted in its entirety to the phone. The parallels between its early years and our own nascent Internet age go unremarked. "Even the mobile phone, arguably, is more scrutinized for its computer-like texting functions than its influence on our vocal communication."

Perhaps, in the end, the phone "didn't change us much after all," Vanderbilt concludes. If you plumb the social norms of a typical phone conversation, which he does, in detail, the "striking [thing is] how much of the spirit and function of social interaction survives on the phone, even stripped of humans' powerful nonverbal cues."

The lessons from this for our modern technological disruption are at once obvious and overlooked. It's not as though the telephone didn't revolutionize aspects of society. Those "messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind"? They lost their jobs. Companies went under and new companies rose; skills became obsolete and a new generation of workers worked toward different lines for their resumes. People will still be human, whether they're connecting over the phone or over IM, but the disruption is real and not without costs. When we are uncomfortable with the way a new technology is changing our society, the story of the telephone reminds us that we should be careful to parse out the things that are vulnerable in our society (such as jobs, institutions, and organizations) from what seems a bit more resistant to change -- namely, us.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.